The Jewish dilemma: Separating the community from the nation of Israel

By Sanen Marshall


THE term Semites once referred to the entire group of peoples in the Middle East. The term anti-Semitism, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, refers to a “very deep-seated form of racism.”

One could add that anti-Semitism is both alike and unlike (or unique in comparison to) other forms of racism. Its historical roots are of course unique, emerging predominantly from a religiously inspired notion of Jews as “Christ-killers” in the Middle Ages of Europe.

The prejudice associated with this religiously inspired form of persecution – for which the late Pope John Paul II felt compelled to offer an apology in year 2000 – later found its way into the racial discourses of various modern states.

National socialism in Germany was the most vicious of these public discourses. The end result of such historically derived modern prejudices was the Holocaust. It is annually commemorated on Jan 27th, through International Holocaust Remembrance Day in respect of the millions of Jews who died in various concentration camps across Nazi-occupied Europe.

The idea therefore that people in the non-Western world could somehow be anti-Semitic is usually dismissed out-of-hand, not least because the word Semites refers to a broad range of peoples with whom the countries of Asia and Africa have close relations.

This outlook is sometimes espoused within academic circles in Malaysia and picked up by politicians. However, as historian Jocelyn Hellig in her “The Holocaust and Antisemitism: A Short History” reminds us ‘[t]hough the Arabs too were classified as ‘Semites,’ the term “antisemitism” is never seriously applied to them.’

Therefore, it is entirely possible that a uniquely “deep seated form of racism” like antisemitism may also be present in non-European societies through the dissemination of locally generated anti-Jewish narratives. These may be used to supplement a poorly understood history of tumultuous events like the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Case in point: the Malaysian Government’s ill-advised attempt in 1994 to ban Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning movie Schindler’s List.

Perhaps in response to the negative publicity generated by the ban, the Government in 1997 invited the Israeli national cricket team to play in Malaysia as part of the 22-nation International Cricket Council Trophy tournament. The team’s manager remarked at the time that they felt welcomed and that “…the Malaysian Government…accepted us in an unprecedented way.”

Recalling the incident more than two decades later, the Malaysian premier who invited the Israeli cricket team claimed that he sent the invitation to show that “we were not terrorists”, though not mentioning the incidents that took place outside the cricket arena where the Malaysian police were busy quelling reportedly “violent street protests” with tear gas and water cannon, protests that had apparently also chanted “death to Jews.”

More recently, in February 2018, the Malaysian Government allowed the participation of Israeli delegates at the Ninth World Urban Forum since they were invited by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), although emphasising that this gesture by Malaysia “does not mean that the Government intends to forge diplomatic ties with Israel.”

Indeed, a few months later, but under a different administration, the Malaysian Government chose, controversially, to reject the participation of Israeli athletes during one of the rounds of the World Para Swimming Championships that was held in the country.

This in turn led to the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) removal of Malaysia as host for the event.

Normalising ties with Israel: A distant idea for Malaysia

It is unlikely that any Government of this Southeast Asian nation and the right-wing political parties that have always dominated the upper echelons of the state will move to normalise relations with Israel in the near future. Malaysia does not possess the strategic concerns that Arab countries living in closer proximity to Israel possess. For Palestinians living in the occupied Gaza strip and the West Bank, the boycott of Israel is a good thing. They have descried recent attempts by Arab countries at “normalization” of relations with Israel as a “treacherous stab in the back”.  

This is because the Israeli state under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not only not been content to reside within its UN-recognised borders but has sought to illegally acquire vast amounts of Palestinian land and resources through expansion of Israeli political sovereignty under the current annexation plan.

Prior to September this year, the only Arab countries that recognised the Jewish state were Egypt and Jordan. Now Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have joined the ranks after signing an accord with Israel.

Sudan also appears to be well on the way to normalise ties with Israel, with the joint statement by the two countries to the international press a few months ago. Morocco is another country that has made various pledges seemingly aimed at resuming or even upgrading its previous patchy relationship with Israel.

There are a number of strategic reasons why these countries have chosen to recognise Israel, ranging for the need to purchase US weapons, to get themselves removed from the terrorist lists, and to counter Iran’s regional influence. The Middle East Monitor also alleges that Israel has managed to work through “influencers” in the UAE and one or two other Arab countries to create a favourable view of normalisation and present an unduly critical view of the Palestinians.

In the case of Morocco, observers have noted that Morroco is seeking to draw attention away from the independence movement in neighboring Western Sahara and its occupation of huge swaths of Western Sahara territory. Notwithstanding these strategic advantages for some Arab states, observers have noted that Arab societies themselves continue to be sympathetic to the Palestinians and opposed the move to recognise Israel.

Malaysia, like a number of other countries, recognises the state of Palestine and hosts a Palestinian embassy in its capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia consistency votes in favour of Palestine and against Israel in international forums such as the UN General Assembly. The country does not recognise Israel and Malaysian passport holders are not allowed to visit that country, except for reasons of pilgrimage.

Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak – under whose administration Israeli delegates participated in the Malaysian-hosted 2018 World Urban Forum – visited Palestine some years earlier, travelling on land through Egypt’s Rafah crossing into the Gaza strip.

A host of NGOs have also been set up in Malaysia, specifically for advocating the rights of the Palestinians and receiving and transferring donations to Palestine. In 2010, Malaysian activists joined campaigners from a host of other countries on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, which attempted to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip by delivering humanitarian supplies.

Gaza Freedom Flotilla campaign


How Malaysian Jews were targetted?

The Malaysian “street” therefore, just like the Arab street, still stands in solidarity with the Palestinians against Israel. In fact, the Kuala Lumpur City Council recently chose to rename a street in the capital city as Jalan Palestin, which it said “was symbolic of Malaysia’s support for Palestine”.

At the same time, what little heritage that is left of Malaysia’s historic Jewish community remains insecure. A leading Malaysian daily, The Star, noted that the street that used to be called Jalan Yahudi or Jewish Street in the Malaysian state of Penang has been renamed Jalan Zainal Abidin in deference to a national laureate. This, in spite of the fact that already “there is a road named after him [in Kuala Lumpur] and many colleges or residential hostels in Malaysia are named after him as well”. The Malaysian street thus seems to have overwritten the country’s one and only Jewish street.

Jewish cemetery in Penang


The same news source goes on to reminisce on the “the country’s only Jewish cemetery which was set up in 1805….” in Penang. The writers note that unlike Jalan Yahudi, the Jewish cemetery “is still in existence there …. but most of the time, the gates are locked, perhaps mindful that it could be the target of anti-Semitic elements.

The reminiscence of one of the last Jews to have grown up in Malaysia as a citizen is perhaps illustrative of the political climate then and perhaps even now. It is based on what appears to be a rare interview given to a writer from the Australian Jewish News more than a decade ago. In that interview, 71-year old Tefa Ephraim – of whom the paper noted was still the custodian of Penang’s Jewish heritage, despite her emigration to Australia – recounted that it was “alright” growing up Jewish in cosmopolitan Penang right up to the 1990-91 Gulf War.

In that war, then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s audacity in standing up to the world’s only superpower under the leadership of George Bush Sr. captured the imagination of various segments of society in countries like Malaysia that were sympathetic to the plight of the Arab world. It was also during that war that Iraq decided to launch missile attacks on Israel.

It was one of those rare occasions since the formation of the state of Israel that the country had come under a direct attack from an Arab state but chose, strategically, not to retaliate. It was also during that historic war when, according to Ephraim who was living in Malaysia at the time, “they started … becoming anti-Jewish, and they knew I was Jewish and they started passing remarks and all that … There were a few fanatics in the office — they threatened me on the phone.”

For a country that has historically hosted only a miniscule Jewish community, Ephraim’s experience might seem like a non-issue. However, as Holocaust memorials researcher Hannah Holtschneider reminds us in her The Holocaust and Representations of Jews: History and Identity in the Museum, “Jews provide a reference point for the perception of ‘the other’…[r]epresentations of Jews in public discourses are … a litmus test … in the negotiation of majority-minority relations and for the assessment of the success of combating inter-group hatred.”

Malaysia being an ethnically diverse country with a substantial minority population, would, one would think, be the first to understand that the history of the persecution of the Jews speaks to everyone across space and time, including in the way in which Malaysia treats “the other” in everyday society.

In this localised context, commemorative events like International Holocaust Remembrance Day would not be about legitimising political Zionist occupation of Palestinian land. It would be, as Holtschneider again reminds us, about creating a participatory discourse about how “Jews are ‘like us and distinct.”

From the local perspective, the catastrophe that was unleashed on the Palestinians in the aftermath of the 1948 formation of a Jewish state in the Arab world has nothing to do with Malaysia’s erstwhile Jewish community or the street where they once lived.

On the contrary, if Malaysian Jews feel they are not welcome here, where should they go? Surely not to the very state that the Government refuses to recognise? – Feb 23, 2021


Sanen Marshall is a political scientist who teaches at the Centre for the Promotion of Knowledge and Language Learning, Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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